Funny how time slips away. Friday night at Ravinia, Joni Mitchell closed the first portion of her set with "Woodstock," and all of a sudden it seemed like time warp time - because exactly five years have gone by since half a million gathered in the rain at Max Yasgur's farm to celebrate peace and love and all those other things that now seem like so many passé clichés.
Joni Mitchell emerged as a songwriter to reckon with on the strength of "Both Sides Now" the year before Woodstock, which means she's been on the scene six years. These days, of course, she's as well known as a singer as a songwriter, and more than that, she has become a sort of mystique - the tall fragile-looking blonde woman who sings songs for aging children, full of the fragility of emotion and the transience of love. Friday night her repertoire ranged from "Both Sides Now" to her recent hit, "Help Me," and somewhere along the way it turned into one of the most memorable of Ravinia's pop programs. Memorable because of Mitchell - and the rain. In fact, some of the audience may still be drying out.
It started pouring during "Woodstock." But an hour later, a lot of the crowd that showed up with blankets and spread out on the lawn remained, some seeking shelter and others standing drenched in the deluge.
People apparently will suffer a lot to hear Mitchell, tho not as silently as she might have wished. In fact, more than once she stopped singing to comment on the muttering and plead for quiet.
Mitchell is used to having people hanging on every word she sings, tho her highly personal raps between songs aren't all that engrossing. Her music, too, is and always has been highly personal to follow and relate to. But with "Court and Speak," her recent and best album, her songs have become more accessible, and with the excellent jazz-rock accompaniment of Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, who backed her for most of the evening, far more satisfying.
After a short set by Scott and the Express, Mitchell appeared and added her acoustic guitar to the electric accompaniment for several songs, including "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," which ended with a segment where she used her voice as another beautiful instrument. Switching back and forth from guitar to piano, she made her way thru a lot of Mitchell classics, including "Big Yellow Taxi," about how they've "paved paradise, and put in a parking lot."
Unfortunately, I can never hear that song without thinking cynically that the conglomerate Mitchell records for owns a great deal of parking lots. That's reality. Mitchell, on the other hand, is illusion. Her music sets up situations, creates fragile moods and draws us into them, if only for the space of time it takes to sing each song. The concert was a mix of those moods, interspersed with thunder and lightning and the reality of rain. For those who'd found shelter, it was pleasant enough. For the rest - well, it rained at Woodstock, too, but that seems very far away now, as it probably did to the dregs who stood around 'til the end, then, as the last song drew to an end, set up the rallying cry of the Ravinia hitchhikers: "Anyone going to Skokie?"